The ancient world was not known for transparency; secret plots on other people, intrigue, scheming, and deceptions formed much of the fabric of ancient judicial courts, penal proceedings, and political structures. Not surprisingly, ancient gods reflected the human realm. In ancient Mesopotamia, secrecy formed a bond between religion and the state for the king had a retinue of advisors and protectors who alone held the secrets of the divine sphere. The Assyro-Babylonians believed that the gods held information secret from all but a very elite few.
Yet, despite the view of the Hebrew prophets, that Yahweh also possessed secret knowledge, the chief difference between His use of that knowledge and the gods of Mesopotamia lay in his insistence that the prophets not only learn his secrets but make those secrets known.1 As Amos wrote: “Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (3:7, NRSV).
More than any other individual in the Bible, Jesus taught and exhibited transparency. “Nothing is hidden,” he said, “that won’t be revealed, and nothing is secret that won’t be brought out into the open” (Luke 12:2, CEB). “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:3, NRSV). To the high priest, at his trial, Jesus said, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in the synagogues and in the temple where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret” (John 18:20, NRSV). To Nicodemus, Jesus said: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil, hate the light and do not come to the light so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21, NRSV).
I recently decided to apply Jesus’ advocacy of transparency and rejection of secrecy to the book of Acts. What I discovered included both some expected results and some surprises. The book of Acts starts out with the disciples still staying in an upstairs room the same “upper room” they had shared since Jesus knelt down and washed their feet and then ate the Passover meal with them. After the Jews and Romans had Jesus crucified and the disciples buried him in the tomb, they spent most of their time in that same room—with the doors barred, living in secrecy. After its prologue, in which Luke tells how Jesus instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Holy Spirit, Acts opens with the disciples obviously having left that room to meet with Jesus. Once again Jesus reiterates the promise of the Holy Spirit, noting that when he came on them they would be going all over the world. Obviously, their days of secrecy were soon to end. Jesus then ascends into heaven.
Afterwards, they retreat back to the upstairs room where they spend considerable time in prayer. Not only the twelve pray there but also Jesus’ brothers and some women, including, Jesus’ mother, Mary. While they wait for the Holy Spirit, under Peter’s guidance, they, now a crowd of 120 persons, choose someone to replace Judas. By this time, they must have moved to a more open place because they are still together when the Holy Spirit comes on them. As they begin to speak in tongues, a larger crowd gathers, and Peter boldly preaches his Pentecost sermon, winning 3,000 converts to Jesus.
From then on, “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread from house to house and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47, NRSV). The days of secrecy have give way to transparency and boldness. Peter and John heal a cripple at the temple on one of those days, and Peter takes the opportunity to talk about Jesus. For all their openness, the captain of the temple and the Sadducees (who were of the priestly class and possibly the dominant force on the Sanhedrin) arrest the two apostles and hold them in custody. At least they do this action openly and not with the same secrecy as they had used when they arrested and tried Jesus.
At their trial the next morning, Peter uses their question to begin another sermon. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (4:13, NRSV). When they recognized the cured man standing with them, they remained silent. But they sent the apostles out so that they could discuss the situation. While this is common procedure, even today, it does convey the implied message that they wanted to make their decision secretly. Of course, the Sanhedrin was not fully a representative body in Judaism. No Essenes were members; and this new group of Jews raised up by Jesus could not hope to have input in such an important assembly. In the end, all the council could do was to order them not to speak in Jesus’ name to anyone. Peter and John straightened their backs and told them they would not obey. “After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened” (4:21, NRSV).
The apostolic response was to pray for holy boldness. Gone are the days of cowering behind a bolted door. The Holy Spirit responded in power, shaking the place where they met and filling them with the boldness they desired. They heal people all over Jerusalem and get opposition for it. This time the religious authorities arrest the apostles and put them in custody. But that night an angel “opened the prison doors, brought them out, and said, ‘Go, stand in the temple and tell the people the whole message about this life.’ When they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and went on with their teaching” (5:19-20, NRSV).
The next morning the council met and discovered them missing from prison and teaching the people in the temple. The temple police and the captain brought them in—again without violence, for they were afraid of the people. Here we have a new form of secrecy—a secret desire to do violence but cannot for fear of reprisals from the people. When the high priest protested that they had disobeyed his orders, they responded, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior. . . . And we are witnesses to these things and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:29-31, NRSV). Enraged, the council members wanted to kill them, but Gamaliel stopped them. So they flogged them instead, ordering them once again not to speak in Jesus’ name. Soon a deacon named Stephen begins arguing successfully with some from the synagogue of the Freedmen.
What happens next reveals a pattern that I find instructive. With the council failing to kill the apostles and stamp out the flames of the Holy Spirit living in their hearts, these debaters “secretly instigated some men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” The results of this secret behavior included Stephen’s stoning.
A few chapters later, we find Paul openly persecuting the early believers in Jesus.2 Once converted he nearly outdoes the rest of the apostles in his boldness as a witness for Christ. He too receives opposition from various quarter, both Gentile and Jewish. Finally arrested in Jerusalem, he appeals to Cesar to save his life from his own people. Even so, after his strategic move to set the Sanhedrin against itself over the resurrection of the dead, he escapes that trial. But failing to have Paul put to death, forty Jews “joined in a conspiracy and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat or drink until they had killed Paul.” They get the chief priests to agree to send an order to the Roman tribune to send Paul to them. They plot to “do away with him” before he could arrive (Acts 23:12-15, NRSV). But Paul’s nephew hears of the planned ambush and saves Paul’s life.
Several lessons stand out in my brief and, perhaps, inadequate survey of transparency and secrecy in Acts with the corollary statements by Jesus. Before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, believers lived in some secrecy, but once the Spirit came upon them, they lost their timidity and spoke openly and boldly of Jesus. For some time, their opponents were fairly open too, except for times when they met as a council to discuss matters among themselves. But as their plans to stop the speaking of Jesus failed and the believers increased daily, they resorted to secret schemes and plots to try to stop the progress the Holy Spirit was making on the hearts of the people. The religious leaders did this to Jesus; naturally, they would do it to His disciples.
Human beings are transparent to the extent that they believe they have power and control over society; they resort to secrecy when they feel they are losing their dominion. Those willing to engage in secret schemes against those they feel are wrong reveal by their secrecy that they are children of darkness and not of the light. No matter who they are or what they have accomplished; no matter what they claim to believe or deny, they fail to maintain their transparency because they know that the light would reveal their evil deeds.
“Everything that Christians do should be as transparent as the sunlight. Truth is of God; deception, in every one of its myriad forms, is of Satan; and whoever in any way departs from the straight line of truth is betraying himself into the power of the wicked one” (MB 68). It is easy to point our fingers at others whom we view as lacking transparency. “Yet it is not a light or an easy thing to speak the exact truth. We cannot speak the truth unless we know the truth; and how often preconceived opinions, mental bias, imperfect knowledge, errors of judgment, prevent a right understanding of matters with which we have to do. We cannot speak the truth unless our minds are continually guided by Him who is truth” (MB 68)
Finally, after Jesus’ crucifixion and ascension, if his disciples wait and pray for the Holy Spirit, he will come. Openly. Transparently. With clarity. And nothing can keep him back.
Notes & References:
1 Alan Lenzi.
2 Space does not permit a full study of these themes in Acts.
L. Jean Sheldon, is Professor of Old Testament at Pacific Union College. She specializes in Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.
Image credit: Unsplash
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